“I can’t breathe.” That phrase has become synonymous with the fight against police violence, but it also applies to another important civil rights issue: environmental justice. Historically, Black communities, from big cities to rural enclaves, have suffered disproportionately from the consequences of environmental abuse and neglect, and climate change is making the situation worse.
Many Black Americans have dedicated their lives to helping communities of color protect themselves from environmental racism. One of the leaders of that movement is Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice. He’s written several books on the issue, including Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color. He collaborated with lawmakers including Maxine Waters, Al Gore, and the late John Lewis on environmental justice, and earned a lifetime achievement award from the United Nations Environment Programme. Robert Bullard is currently co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University.
On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with him about the cost of environmental racism and how a new generation is leading the fight to stop it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: You’re quoted as saying the United States of America is segregated, and so is pollution. What does that even mean?
Robert Bullard: Most people don’t think about pollution cutting across their neighborhoods, or crisscrossing their parks and schools. But for some people, it’s an everyday situation, and it’s ingrained in the way that our industrial policies have allowed pollution and threats from the built environment to be concentrated in Black communities and communities of color. And so if you look at who gets what, when, where, and why, it is not by accident, and your ZIP code is probably the best predictor of health and well-being, and where you live can impact your health.
Systemic racism that drives pollution to communities of color, it’s the same system that drives unequal protection when it comes to policing, when it comes to health care, when it comes to parks and green space. So yes, America is segregated, and so is pollution.
So if you look around a Black neighborhood where you are in Texas, or where I work in Baltimore or D.C., what are the visible signs of environmental racism? If you’re taking a tour of people through a neighborhood and saying, “That’s environmental racism,” what kinds of things would you point to in a Black neighborhood?
This is how it works, Jason. If we could, fast-forward back 100 years ago in the ’20s when racial redlining basically drew red markers around which communities would get nothing when it comes to housing, green space, parks, street pavings, sewer lines, etc., and then you could fast-forward to right now, we’re talking the 1920s and the 2020s. The communities that were redlined 100 years ago and were pushed into low-lying areas with all industrial facilities, these are the areas that are the hottest in the city, where there’s urban heat islands, meaning it’s 10 to 15 degrees hotter. If you look at the fact that there are very few parks, green space, green canopy, very few full service grocery stores. You have schools across the street or across the fence from polluting facilities. Even when you have places that have zoning, locally unwanted land uses—and this is what planners called LULUs– it’s basically saying “Black people or people of color, you are going to get the nasty stuff, and white people and the more affluent folks, they’re going to get the parks, green space, walk trails, nature trails, all of the things that we know make communities healthy.”
You can see the visible footprint of that racial redline that was stamped into the DNA of our cities; you can see that just up close and personal today. And COVID-19 really just took the scab off, and it just made it raw. And with the technology, with GIS mapping, spatial mapping, we can do it on a cellphone, on an iPad and just bring up all of the things that we know will make our communities unhealthy and will create those environmental disparities, those health disparities, those economic disparities, theft of Black wealth by stealing the home values. It’s more than just not having trees. It’s about the theft of transformative wealth, that a family can’t pass down to that next generation after they bought that home. And it’s stealing health and wealth. That’s the injustice that you can see visibly and feel.
I think back to growing up as a kid and watching Fat Albert and thinking about the fact that those kids didn’t have a park, that they were playing in a junkyard. Now we were supposed to think it was cute, but it was because they were all basically forced into the ghetto. They didn’t have a clean, open space to play. They’re hanging around rusted pieces of metal and garbage and trash and things like that. And so what you’re saying to me basically is that’s some of what we’re seeing, that everything from not being able to get clean groceries, to having to play in a junk yard because that was the safest place to be, are examples of not only Black wealth being stolen, but also Black people being victimized by racism.
You hit it on the head. We’re talking about infrastructure, and whether it’s a park, a school, or a landfill or a highway, all infrastructure is not created equal. And infrastructure has been a way of parceling out the goods and parceling out the bad. And we call that infrastructure redlining. Highways have literally just run through Black communities and have destroyed homeowners and business corridors. They say that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but highways don’t go in straight lines. Oftentimes they detour around affluent communities. They don’t cut through those wealthy communities, but they’ve ripped through our communities. That is a form of transportation racism.
I understand that your origin story is you were an environmentalist. You began in Houston back in the late ’70s. You said you were kind of drafted into the movement. Now I know we haven’t had a draft since Vietnam. So how exactly did you get drafted into the environmental justice movement?
[In] 1978, ’79, I was drafted by my wife to help her fight an environmental racism lawsuit. She filed a case in Houston, the first civil rights case charging environmental racism, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. And this was a case where this company tried to get a permit for a sanitary landfill—and we know there’s nothing sanitary about a landfill—in this predominantly Black middle-class suburban community. This was not a poverty pocket. It was not a ghetto. It was not low income. Middle-class Black, suburban neighborhood, nothing out there except houses, homeowners, trees, and Black people. And my wife filed a lawsuit and she needed someone to collect data for her lawsuit to do a study.
I had 10 students in my Research Methods class at Texas Southern University, where I am now. I designed the study. We ran the data. And what I found is that five out of five of the city-owned landfills were in Black neighborhoods, six out of eight of the city owned incinerators were in Black neighborhoods, and three out of four of the privately owned landfills were in Black neighborhoods. So from the 1930s all the way up to 1978, 82 percent of all the garbage dumped in Houston was dumped in Black neighborhoods, even though Blacks made up only 25 percent of the population.
When it went to court, the judge, the federal judge, and old white man –must’ve been 150 years old– calling us “Negros.” This is 1985. Now if you are from the South, and you’re in court room when the judge calls you “Negro,” that’s the n-word, cleaned up. We lost the case, but we were able to get incremental changes in Houston, because Houston doesn’t have zoning, didn’t have zoning. It’s the fourth-largest city, but it’s a no-zoning city. We were able to get some changes made in terms of this landfill was located 1,300 feet from a school. And within that two mile radius, there were at least a half-dozen schools.
This was just in-your-face racism, never mind the fact that 85 percent of the residents in that neighborhood were middle-class homeowners. There was no industry out there. So it was just the ultimate disrespect. You bought your home, your American dream, and now, “In your face, Black people, you’re going to get a garbage dump.” That opened my eyes, and it started me on this quest for justice. And that’s when I started writing, expanding, the Houston study to look at what was happening in the Southern United States.
I want to continue with that. I want to talk about policy. What are the policies that were in place in Houston, and in Texas in general, that led to Hurricane Harvey being as much of a disaster as it was? What are the policy failures and some of your personal experiences with that after Hurricane Harvey in 2017?
A lot of the damage that occurred in Black and brown communities in Houston after Harvey were man-made. They were not natural. And when you talk about the disparities in which the kinds of risks and vulnerabilities in terms of people being able to evacuate, or people being able to somehow be protected in terms of having resources. So it’s only natural just to say the most vulnerable community will be further marginalized when disasters hit. The communities that were most impacted in the previous 500-year floods –the Tax Day Flood, the Memorial Day Flood– they got hit even harder doing Harvey. The disasters will make the inequalities that we know in our society even more visible, and climate change will create more marginalized communities and more vulnerable communities.
And you can see that in terms of policy, and you can see it in terms of how recovery dollars get shipped to communities. Who gets the money and who get promises, or who get left out?
What is disaster capitalism, and how does that also show us what environmental racism can do to this country?
OK, let me give you an example. Winter Storm Uri, that happened in February of this year. We used to prepare in the Gulf Coast for disasters June through November, that’s hurricane season. But climate change is making us have to prepare year round. And so the communities that got hit the hardest in Harvey, in terms of 2017, you have just nothing but a high concentration of people of color, working-class folks, and folks who are very vulnerable when it rains a lot.
Then you look at this ice storm that happened in February. The same communities got hit the hardest and are having more problems trying to bounce back, because the way that it works is disaster capitalism. You asked me to define it. Money follows money, money follows power, money follows whites. After billions and billions of dollars that go in for recovery, white communities end up better off after the recovery dollars go in, whereas communities of color end up worse off.